Claire Messud: Manhattan before the catastrophe

Claire Messud's novel, set in the run up to 9/11, has just been longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Suzi Feay talks to her about her writing and what it's like being married to the fiercest literary critic on the block
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Claire Messud's launch party is a homely affair in a central London bookshop, but there's a special buzz in the air. Inclusion on the Man Booker long list has suddenly made this quiet, rather studious-seeming woman a hot literary property. Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst and even the great Zadie Smith, gangly husband in tow, have all come to pay their respects.

The Emperor's Children is Messud's third novel (a fourth book, The Hunters, was a collection of novellas). Since her debut, When the World Was Steady, came out in 1994, she has always been critically acclaimed, but now there's an excited sense that she has broken new ground. The blurb on the proof copy calls it a New York novel "in the tradition of Edith Wharton... Truman Capote and Jay McInerney". It's certainly a solidly traditional narrative, with background detail carefully inked in and, to begin with at least, an elegant, unhurried pace. Each chapter has a pointed title (you can read Chapter 8, "An American Scholar", on page 24), and the book is divided into larger sections under the names of the months. It begins in March, and there's a slow, painful countdown to September... and beyond.

"The two things people want to talk about are the long list and 9/11," Messud tells me. But "it's not a novel about 9/11," she adds, "it's a novel about people living their lives. James [Wood, her husband, the literary critic] claims credit for this observation: he calls it an August 1914 novel. Before the Change."

The story revolves around three charming, self-obsessed 30-year-old friends, Danielle, Julius and Marina. There's a kind of false beginning in Sydney (chapter title: "Our chef is very famous in London") when Danielle, in Australia to research a TV programme, meets the silken, viper-like Ludovic Seeley. Instantly attracted, she is delighted to discover than he is on his way to take Manhattan as the editor of a stern new cultural journal, The Monitor. "I'm going to foment revolution," he tells her gleefully.

Back in New York, she hooks up with her best friend, the daughter of a liberal journalist and a lawyer. Still supported by her parents, holed up in their sumptuous Manhattan apartment, the privileged, beautiful Marina is working vaguely on a book. She says things like, "You're so lucky, really, Danny... You never have to worry whether guys like you for your looks or for you." Some kind of kamikaze instinct prompts Danielle to introduce Marina to Ludo to get work on the magazine. The inevitable happens: "[Danielle] ought to have known that Ludovic Seeley, in such matters, would be no more a revolutionary than the next guy."

This erotic disappointment hurls Danielle perilously into the arms of a new lover. Meanwhile, the girls' friend Julius, a veteran of gay one-night-stands, has found himself a mysterious new boyfriend whom he's keeping to himself. Crazily, obliviously, they all dance towards disaster, backed by a supporting cast of brilliantly realised characters. There's Marina's father, the complacent Murray Thwaite, a faded literary lion; there's the luckless Bootie, Marina's lumpen cousin; and David Cohen, Julius's blandly sinister new boyfriend.

"Someone said to me, why didn't you write it without Julius, because in some ways his strand is somewhat separate. But it was like a piece of music in my head. I couldn't imagine it without him. Three is an interesting number, anyway," says Messud. We're talking in the drawing room of a Covent Garden hotel, got up to look like Chatsworth. Messud seems to be beadily taking in every detail.

"Julius was always there in my head," she goes on. "I didn't know at the beginning that he would get such a rough ride, but it wasn't a conscious decision: oh, I must have a gay character." I compliment her on those sections, but she looks troubled. "It only occurred to me after I'd finished the novel that people might think this is a representation of gay life, and it's not - it's about one particular character. I'm not saying, 'This is what gay life is like! This is where it will lead!' It doesn't seem an alien world to me. In the world I've lived in, gay marriage, for example, seems completely logical. And yet there are many people who don't live in that world. So I hope people won't take that as representative, any more than Danielle's life is representative, or Bootie's life is representative. They're just lives."

She herself summoned the spectre of James Wood, one of the most terrifyingly strict of literary critics (he gave Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man a memorable pasting), so I ask whether she uses his critical services on her own writing.

"He's the person who reads my work," she smiles. "But, you know, I want him to be my loving husband, and an honest critic. And I want those two to come together in the same response: 'Great!' It's hard for him," she concedes, laughing. "But he is always very constructive."

Indeed, he once advised her to throw out a novel-in-progress in its entirety, but she bears no grudges. "He wasn't vile about it, he didn't make me cry or anything. And I knew he was right. It wasn't remediable - and I was grateful."

In the year her first novel came out, Wood was a Booker prize judge, and there's a celebrated anecdote about his lack of gallantry when consideration turned to his wife. I ask her for the story.

"There's his version - I don't know what the story on the street is."

Just that when the discussion turned to your novel, he didn't 'fess up to being your husband, and when he was challenged, he said, "Well, it didn't have a chance anyway."

"I think he did say that! There were people afterwards who said, I can't believe you're still married!"

Her novel, she clarifies, had been recommended for discussion at the next meeing, "and he thought, if I say now that we're married, nobody will bother reading it. He also thought I didn't stand a chance, but - let them read it. It was a miscalculation, but he thought, I'll tell them at the next meeting. Then two days later, a reporter from The Times rang at 7.30am. I could hear James saying, 'No, you can't speak to her. No, I don't have any wedding photos...' We ended up on page three. And then everybody had their say. Auberon Waugh said: 'From the photograph she looks like quite a nice young lady and she's perfectly welcome to come and write for me.'"

Messud is enjoying her Man Booker moment, but has, she says cheerfully, "no expectations". With The Emperor's Children, something of a masterpiece, she deserves to hit the headlines in an altogether more gratifying way.

'The Emperor's Children' is published by Picador at £14.99. To buy a copy for £13.50 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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